Unless you're taking the proper steps, like weight training and eating enough protein to build muscle, you naturally lose muscle mass as you age. Loss of muscle, which is medically referred to as sarcopenia, can negatively affect your quality of life and make it harder for you to move around.
While you don't have to eat a ton of protein or follow a weight-lifting regimen that resembles what a bodybuilder might do, if you're not meeting your regular protein needs and getting some strength training in, you will lose muscle over time. It might not happen until later in life (usually in your 50s), but getting into a routine now provides other health benefits, too.
If you don't eat enough protein and regularly engage in some type of resistance training, like lifting weights, you will naturally lose muscle as you age. Although the effects typically don't happen until later in life, it's beneficial to start a healthy routine as early as possible.
Natural Muscle Loss
As you age, you gradually lose muscle mass. Although this condition, called sarcopenia, is a natural part of aging, it's more exaggerated in people who live a sedentary lifestyle, or don't get enough exercise. Harvard Health notes that if you're not taking steps to prevent it, you'll naturally lose 3 to 5 percent of your muscle mass every decade after the age of 30.
Losing muscle isn't just about aesthetics or how you look, though. When you start to lose muscle, you also lose your endurance and your muscle strength. In fact, a January 2014 report in Sports Health notes that with loss of muscle mass, you also decrease your endurance by about 10 percent per decade. This means that it's harder for you to get around without feeling tired or fatigued, and this loss of strength can limit your motility and independence, especially in your older years.
However, there's good news. According to a report that was published in Clinical Nutrition in April 2014, you can counteract most of the effects of sarcopenia by incorporating regular bouts of both aerobic and resistance (or strength training) exercises.
The report also notes that eating enough protein and getting enough calories can reduce the amount of muscle mass and strength you lose; but combining strength training exercise with an adequate protein intake is considered the holy grail for maintaining muscle mass and function.
Training Without Protein
While exercise has benefits on its own, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that making the effort to get good nutrition and enough protein is one of the best ways to support the strength training in a positive way. That doesn't mean that you have to guzzle protein shakes after every workout or that you won't experience health benefits by training without protein, though.
According to a report published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in January 2013, just incorporating resistance training into your exercise routine alone has been shown to double the rate of protein synthesis after exercise.
But even though weight lifting without adequate protein can build muscle on its own, it's a good idea to be conscious about how much protein you're getting each day and to try to time your protein intake in a way that's most beneficial to you.
The same January 2013 report in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition notes that it's best to time your protein intake so that you're consuming it not more than three to four hours before or after your workout.
Although research is a little mixed, this window of time seems to provide the most benefit when it comes to muscle building following a resistance training session.
Read more: How To Build Muscle Mass After 50
Preserving Muscle Mass
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, preserving the muscle mass you already have takes a lot less protein than building new muscle. That's why it's a good idea to make sure you're meeting your protein needs and getting regular exercise before you lose muscle, so you can keep it instead of trying to replace it after it's lost.
The good news is that protein is found in a wide variety of foods, and it's usually pretty easy to meet your needs. Some high-protein foods that you can include in your diet to meet your needs are:
- Poultry (chicken and turkey)
- Milk and milk products (cheese and yogurt
- Legumes (beans, peas and lentils)
- Nuts and seeds
Read more: 5 Tips for Eating Protein the Right Way
Your Protein Needs
So, how do you know if you're eating enough protein to build muscle? Well, everyone's needs are slightly different, but there are some general recommendations you can go by. For most healthy adults, protein recommendations are set at 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Using this recommendation, you would need around 55 grams of protein per day if you're 150 pounds.
However, the older you get, the more protein it takes to prevent muscle loss. That's because the body becomes more resistant to the muscle-building effects of protein as you age, a condition referred to as anabolic resistance. To combat anabolic resistance, it's recommended that older adults (or people who are over the age of 65) aim for between 1.0 and 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. That means that the same 150-pound person would need between 68 and 82 grams of protein daily.
A report in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care published in May 2015 notes that the distribution of your protein intake is just as important as the total quantity.
Researchers from the report discuss that many people tend to eat the majority of their protein later in the day, during dinner time, but it's more beneficial to your muscles to spread that protein intake out evenly throughout the day. In other words, try to get equal amounts of protein during each meal, instead of getting in most of your protein at night.
- Clinical Nutrition: "Protein Intake and Exercise for Optimal Muscle Function With Aging: Recommendations From the ESPEN Expert Group"
- Sports Health: "Muscle Changes in Aging"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Preserve Your Muscle Mass"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Protein Intake for Optimal Muscle Maintenance"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Nutrient Timing Revisited: Is There a Post-Exercise Anabolic Window?"
- Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care: "Protein Intake and Muscle Function in Older Adults"